Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 9:31 PM on Wednesday, March 9, 2011

State's redistricting board waits for data to begin its work

Morris News Service – Alaska

Alaska's redistricting board is preparing to recreate the puzzle of Alaska's legislative districts, and preliminary estimates show that local districts shouldn't see any major changes.

At Wednesday's Kenai Chamber of Commerce meeting, redistricting Chair John Torgerson talked about the board's plans for the 2011 redistricting efforts.

The 2010 census showed that Alaska had 710,231 people. That means the ideal House district has 17,555 people, up from 15,673 when the board last pieced them together in 2001.

Using estimates from the Department of Labor, the five-member board knows that the major losses will be in Southeast and rural Alaska, and the gains will be in the Matanuska-Susitna area. Both central Kenai Peninsula districts — those areas currently served by Rep. Kurt Olson and Rep. Mike Chenault — are close to the right size, Torgeson said.

The Homer-area district is also about right, he said.

Those estimates aren't set in stone though. The department's population estimate shows fewer people than the census, so the areas could shift if it turns out there are more (or less) people in each district.

Torgerson said Seward might also see some changes — to preserve one of the districts with the most population loss, both Valdez and Seward could get added to District 5, which includes Cordova and other coastal and island communities. But that's not certain yet.

"We just don't have the numbers yet," he said.

The federal government has to provide Alaska with population data from the 2010 U.S. census by April 1.

Torgerson said Alaska asked the federal government to wait until March 21, so the board could do their work in the spring. He said they couldn't get a promise a specific date, but was told the bureau would do its best.

Once the data is out, the board has to get to work.

"The clocks starts as soon as we get the data," Torgerson said. "We have 30 days to draw a draft plan."

Torgerson said the U.S. started releasing the data Feb. 1, and must finish by April 1. Final plans must be adopted 90 days after a state gets their data.

The board is tasked with considering a number of factors when they draw the districts. The first is that they have equal populations. The federal requirement is that the districts are within 10 percent of each other. That's not the case in Alaska.

"The court has already said sharpen your pencil, we want better than that," he said.

The state has thrown out a district that was 6.9 percent off from the ideal size.

Torgerson said he hoped that this time around, the 10 percent standard would be in place.

"We're either going to have a district the size of California, Oregon and Washington combined or we can have one just the size of California and Oregon," he said.

That's because there's another requirement the board must follow. Minority districts — in Alaska, that means districts that are at least 50 percent Alaska Native — must be preserved, and districts with a lower, but still significant, minority population aren't supposed to see a diminished minority concentration. In Alaska, the minority districts are usually rural, making it more difficult to draw them into one district, he said. Other requirements also are at play — districts must be compact and have some socio-economic integration and semblance of community. The board is also expected to respect local government and geographic features when possible.

Ultimately, Torgerson said, courts have interpreted those requirements differently in different places.

"Gerrymandering is in the eye of the beholder," he said.

The redistricting board will meet Wednesday in Anchorage to elect a vice chair and work on their plans for public meetings.

The board will ask communities for their input on how to shift the borders, he said.

Tentatively, Torgerson said the board plans to host pre-plan meetings in a handful of communities (none on the Kenai Peninsula), and have a statewide teleconference. Once they have a draft of the new districts, they'll likely take that plan to 25 communities around the state — including Kenai, Homer and Seward.

Molly Dischner is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.